Had supporters been in the ground on Saturday, groans of frustration may have accompanied Thomas Partey losing the ball close to the halfway line against Manchester United as Arsenal attempted to launch a counter with 11 minutes to play.
However, the Ghana superstar was a beneficiary of a near-empty Emirates Stadium, as his culpability in costing the Gunners a potentially promising transition in the eventual goalless encounter in North London wasn’t met with the ire of almost 60,000 fans.
A lot had been made about the meeting of the age-old rivals, not only due to the history of the fixture in the 90s and early 2000s but largely because of what’s transpired at both clubs since that encounter on November 1. A Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty won the game for Arsenal 1-0 as the three-time Premier League winners claimed a first success at Old Trafford since 2006.
While that statistic seemed to dominate post-game headlines, buried underneath ending a 14-year winless league run at the Theatre of Dreams was how Mikel Arteta’s men produced arguably their most impressive tactical display of the season against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s troops.
Crucial to that victory were the performances of Partey and Elneny in midfield; with the former man-marking Paul Pogba while the Egypt man hassled and harried Bruno Fernandes so much that observers may have been unaware of the playmaker’s presence on the pitch.
The evolution of both sides since — the Gunners overcoming their wretched run in the autumn, growing into one of the PL’s in-form sides and United’s ascent into title contention — meant Saturday’s game arrived with so much promise.
Interestingly, Arteta, believing in his team’s growth since beating Chelsea in December, opted against the same formation and central midfield pairing from three months ago. Rather, the Spanish manager continued with the in-form Granit Xhaka alongside the West African.
Be that as it may, the former Atletico Madrid man didn’t produce a similar kind of showing at the Emirates. For one, Partey wasn’t used in any precise man-marking role on Saturday while he had far fewer touches compared to the encounter in Manchester (73-56).
The all-round midfielder completed the highest volume of progressive passes (nine), ranked highest for forward-thinking ball-carrying (12) and made more recoveries (14) in that Old Trafford win than any teammate.
On Saturday, the respective figures for the aforementioned metrics were three, four and seven. While the 27-year-old was joint-top for progressive passes, he ranked third for progressive carries and fifth for volume of recoveries, highlighting a slight underperformance in the Ghanaian’s game against the same opponents.
What particularly summarised the midfielder’s showing was the alarming drop off after half-time, in which Partey’s influence on proceedings waned, demonstrated by that somewhat uncharacteristic possession loss that nearly resulted in Marcus Rashford scoring from range.
In the final minutes of the first half, the West African had strangely ruined a developing fast break by over-hitting a seemingly easy pass to the left flank into touch which probably highlighted what was to come for the rest of the encounter.
This is not to suggest Partey had a poor match; rather ruing the fact he couldn’t produce a similar showing to the one that announced him to English football in November after an underwhelming first start vs Leicester City in late October.
There were still bright moments, regardless of the supposed underperformance on Saturday. In the 22nd minute, his press resistance and impressive ball-carrying saw him wriggle around United bodies in his half, run the length of the pitch before pulling his effort wide while a massive intervention prevented a Rashford cut-back finding Fernandes for a tap-in.
The mitigating factors surrounding the ex-Atleti player’s underwhelming display will largely originate from fitness issues and injury problems that have troubled him in the last couple of months. When he seemed to be hitting stride following a long-awaited return to action, a knock against Southampton led to an early withdrawal vs Saints and actually made him a doubt for Saturday’s stalemate.
In that sense, maybe little should be read into the disappointing performance in the draw with the Red Devils, who probably deserved a win at the Emirates after edging the expected goals battle 1.5-1.1.
This was a significant improvement on their xG of 0.3 when Arteta’s tactics coupled with Partey’s dominance and application stifled Solskjaer’s men at Old Trafford.
There was an unspoken acceptance of the point after the game and Partey, despite the absence of an encore, will have been relieved to come out of the encounter unscathed after a similar decision to risk him from the off backfired in the North London Derby.